Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 16, 2017

The Selected Stories of Mercè Rodoreda, translated by Martha Tennent

Mercè Rodoreda, photo by Vilallonga, CC BY-SA 2.5, (Wikipedia Commons)

It’s Spanish Lit Month over at Winston’s Dad, so I checked out the TBR and found two works by Mercè Rodoreda (1908-1983), making this post a prelude to WIT (women in translation) Month in August too.

Mercè Rodoreda was born in Barcelona and wrote in Catalonian.  If you’ve been to Spain, you’ll know that in places with successionist ambitions, like San Sebastian/Donosita or Barcelona, you’ll often hear the local language, not Spanish, and though you might use your tourist Spanish and be understood, you’ll be answered in Basque or Catalan.  At the City Museum in Barcelona, the preliminary video was in French and Catalan, but not Spanish, an interesting choice if they wanted other Spanish tourists to understand their history and perhaps become simpático towards their succession.  I had enough French to make sense of it, but the American tourists beside us were not impressed that there was no English either.

Anyway…

Mercè Rodoreda made an unhappy marriage to an uncle much older than she was, and she began her writing career as an escape, going on to become the most important Catalan writer of the postwar period and writing the most acclaimed Catalan novel of all time (La plaça del diamant (‘The diamond square’, translated as The Time of the Doves, 1962).  Wikipedia says that this novel is also considered by many to be one of the best novels published in Spain after the Spanish Civil War.  (See Grant’s review at 1st Reading if you need any convincing). 

Alas, I don’t have that one, but I do have Death in Spring (1986) and The Selected Stories of Mercè Rodoreda (2011), both published by Open Letter Books (an imprint of Rochester University) and part of their First 25 deal I bought a year or so ago.  I’ve only dipped into The Selected Stories, which are arranged chronologically in the order she wrote them but frustratingly don’t have any dates.

And dates seem relevant with the first two stories…

‘Blood’ seemed to me to have a 1950s feel to it.  It is a depressing story about a woman who lost all sense of identity after she stopped being a woman.  When I read this, I took it to mean menopause, but now that I know via Wikipedia Roderedo had only one child (in a Catholic country), it may also mean that she had a hysterectomy.  This coyness and her oblique references to menstruation suggest later in the twentieth century rather than earlier, but before frankness about these matters arose with the Women’s Movement.  Whatever the cause, this unnamed woman who (like the author) married young, has a good marriage until she feels she is no longer alluring.  She then becomes suspicious of her husband, and although at first he tries to reassure her, eventually he starts to bait her about it, because he finds her overt surveillance of his actions embarrassing.  He even sets up a light switch so that she can spy on him without having to go to the front door to turn on the light.  Dahlias that they had planted together when they were in love, no longer bloom after they separate.  He doesn’t want to leave her, but she feels she has no choice.

‘Threaded Needle’, however, reminded me of Balzac’s 19th century representations of women.  It’s about an ageing woman who (like Roderedo) earned her living as a seamstress.  She fantasises about what she can do with the bequest she expects to get from her cousin, a priest who is fond of her.  She had thought of marrying him but he was sickly and poor, only receiving an inheritance after he took holy orders. As she stitches a bridal nightgown late at night for her demanding boss Mademoiselle Adrienne, she daydreams about setting up her own business, poaching all the best workers, but her fantasy takes a darker turn as she begins to worry that the money might all be gone if he lives long enough for medical expenses to exhaust it. She dozes off and finds herself planning to poison him to ensure that he doesn’t leave the money to anyone else.  When she wakes, she is subsumed by guilt and shame.

These melancholy representations of women defined entirely by their relationships to men depressed me, so I skipped to the last story, ‘White Geranium’.  Again there is a helpless woman, but this time there is a male narrator so subsumed by jealousy that he tortures his wife in her dying days so that she will die more quickly.  It’s quite horrible: he won’t let her change her clothes and he blows a stolen trumpet in her ears to disrupt her sleep.  But after she dies he dresses her in the pink dress that she made to make Cosme, his boss, fall in love with her.  He desecrates her body in other ways too, including breaking off a tooth which he uses to tease the cat that Cosme had given her.  The story then weaves into dark symbolism with magical elements.  Horrible as it is, and though again it features a woman with no agency, it’s a much better story than the first two, which seem quite ordinary to me and notable only for the old-fashioned helplessness of the women.   It’s this story which makes the helplessness make sense…

*lightbulb moment in Lisa’s brain*

Spain was helpless under the iron rule of General Franco for generations, from 1939 to 1975. The Spouse tells a story from when he was living in the inner suburbs of Melbourne about how the streets erupted into celebratory dance and song from former Spanish refugees when Franco died.  Like present day North Koreans enduring a merciless rule, there was nothing they could do except wait for deliverance or to escape.  So Rodoreda’s stories of women with no volition can be read as an analogy for her country in submission to a tyrant, under constant surveillance, fantasising about a future that can only be hastened by violence, and desecrated by one so desperate to cling to power that he destroys the thing he loves.

‘Love’ provides a different slant.  It’s also narrated by a man, a man who loves his wife but has no idea what she wants.  He’s on his way home from work, and calls into a haberdashery to buy a birthday gift.  She’s a seamstress so he thinks she might like something useful.  She’s already spurned a long ago gift of some glass beads as too dressy, and now his disabled grandson plays with them on the floor.  So the man works his way through all the useful notions like thread and sewing tape until finally he comes out with it, he wants to give his wife some sexy knickers.  But alas, she’s too fat now for the size they have so he has to go home empty-handed, saying that a man who works all day has so little time to do things to please, show him in a good light.  I think that if we follow through the analogy, this is the man in charge wanting things to be how they could be if the next generation had not been deformed by the regime: not sparkling clean and soulless due to the industry of the woman under his thumb but light-hearted and beautiful, as Spain could be if it had its freedom.

I might dip into the rest of these stories, but now I want to read the novel.  Goodreads tells me that Death in Spring is a metaphor for Franco’s Spain too, so I’m quite pleased that I worked that out for myself from reading these four short stories.

Author: Mercè Rodoreda
Title: The Selected Stories of Mercè Rodoreda
Translated by Martha Tennent
Publisher: Open Letter Books, 2011 ISBN:  9781934824313
Source: Personal library, purchased direct from Open Letter Books

For Australian readers, this is the link to Fishpond with free delivery: The Selected Stories Of Merce Rodoreda but (I hate to say this because I don’t like to support Amazon) it’s much cheaper at the Book Depository.


Responses

  1. I’ve read her War, So Much War which I enjoyed. I also have Death in Spring and The Time of the Doves, and if time allows I hope to read one before the summer is out.

    • Can I ask how you came across her books? I’d never heard of her, and only have her books because they cam as part of the First-25 package.

      • War, So Much War was long listed for the BTBA in 2016. And there is a writer I know through Twitter who was just about obsessed with her! I ordered the Time of the Doves on his recommendation. The other titles, as Open Letter books were readily available here.

        • Ah yes, I haven’t really kept an eye on the BTBA, perhaps I should from now onwards…

  2. I read and reviewed The Time of the Doves in a translation by Peter Bush which uses the title In Diamond Square (published by Virago) last year. I still haven’t managed to read anything else though I have the recently published A Broken Mirror (Daunt Books) which I hope to read this year.
    I love the way you ‘dramatised’ your realisation about the stories when writing – this happens to me often!

    • Hi Grant, thanks for dropping by. I really struggle with reviewing short story collections because I find it hard to grasp what they’re on about, so in this case, it really was a case of reading the first two and scribbling inane responses in my journal and then the light globe flashing as I read the third one!
      PS What’s the URL of your review please? I’d like to add it as a link:)
      PPS Not to worry, I’ve found it and added it above).

  3. Wonderful review and musings and decision to read the novel, I’m intrigued and look forward to reading more about this writer and her works. Thanks!

    • Well, really, we should both thank Stu for Spanish Lit Month because I might not have got round to reading these stories if not for that:)

      • Yes, I do love how the reading of others and the themes of various months inspire us to dig deeper into the shelves!

  4. I enjoyed you working your way to the metaphor too, but she “married an uncle much older than she”, given what you read about traditional, catholic Spain, her depictions of marriage may also be personal.

    • Yes indeed. It’s complex in Spain, because although it’s a Catholic country, there was also extreme hatred against the church during the civil war. They burnt down dozens, maybe hundreds of churches in and around Barcelona, and the scene in Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls where the Republicans force the Fascists over a cliff includes a priest. Rodoredo worked for the Republicans during the war (before she was exiled) so maybe she was anti-Catholic, I don’t know. Maybe someone who knows more about her can tell us.

      • Orwell too, writes in Homage to Catalonia that when he reached Barcelona in 1936 all the churches had been sacked.

        • Yes, I think Robert Hughes might have talked about it in his Barcelona too, but it’s a long time since I read that so I’m not 100% sure.

  5. I have a book by her as well in my shelves I may read it next month as part wit month

    • Hi Stu, thanks for dropping by. I hope the new job is going well:)

      • Not to bad work two long days last week and am on a course again this week

  6. Interesting and insightful review, Lisa. :-)

    • Thanks for dropping by Celestine:)


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